Ranking baseball's perfect games
There have been 18 perfect games in the history of major league baseball
Don Larsen's gem in Game 5 of the 1956 World Series clearly stands alone
Mark Buerhle's was particularly impressive when you consider the opponent
Mark Buerhle joined one of baseball's most elite clubs on Thursday afternoon in Chicago -- the Zeros-Only Gang of 18 whose members have each put together 27 consecutive outs in a winning ballgame (sorry, Harvey Haddix). It's an elite club, but not limited to elite pitchers. In fact, Buerhle, a good-but-not-great hurler, slots fairly neatly into the middle ranks of the roster of perfectos.
In 2002, I wrote a book called Perfect that detailed the history of the then-16 perfect games. Thanks to Randy Johnson's gem in 2004, I updated the book once. (Please direct your pleas for a third edition to the editors at Triumph Books in Chicago.) In the meantime, the editors of SI.com asked me to rank all 18 of these ultimate pitching performances. I can't promise as much perfection as these guys delivered, but I'll give it a shot.
Of course, ranking perfection is a bit of stretch. If a pitcher cannot do any better than keeping his opponent off the bases, how do you compare the perfect apple with the perfect orange? Who is more amazing: Miles Davis or Charlie Parker? Who is hotter: Angelina Jolie or Jennifer Aniston? However, if we add the timing of the event during a season, quality of opposition, era in which it happened, and even the amount of help from teammates to the "competition," we can rough out a list.
No. 1 is an easy choice: Don Larsen of the Yankees throwing the only perfect game in World Series history in 1956, a 2-0 win over Brooklyn. On the biggest stage, Larsen was the most magnificent. Larsen truly stands alone. Larsen's feat is perhaps more amazing when you learn that he was not informed that he was starting until he arrived -- in a somewhat less-than-ready state -- at the ballpark. Manager Casey Stengel famously left the game ball in Larsen's shoe, a sort of horsehide Tweet. The image of catcher Yogi Berra leaping into Larsen's arms remains one of baseball's most iconic.
No. 2 is a lesser-known -- and tragic -- hero. In 1908, Cleveland's Addie Joss came through with the most clutch perfect game ever. In the waning days of an intense pennant race, facing Ed Walsh of the rival White Sox -- who himself allowed only one run and struck out 15 -- Joss tossed just the fourth perfect game ever. When his team needed his best, Joss gave it to them, winning 1-0. The game was part of a 7-1 September/October for Joss, including five shutouts. Sadly, though he remains second all-time in career ERA, Joss's life and work were cut short by meningitis in early 1911.
No. 3, though some might put him higher, is Sandy Koufax, who literally had to be perfect to win. Bob Hendley of the Cubs, the opposing pitcher in Koufax's 1965 perfecto, allowed only one hit himself. The only run of the game was scored by the Dodgers in the fifth via a walk, a sacrifice, a stolen base, and an error. This was the 1960s, remember. It remains the only one-hit (total) game in big league history. L.A.'s Lou Johnson reached base on a walk and a double and that was it -- no other baserunners.
No. 4 is the most obscure member of the Perfect Club, with the shortest career and least impressive resume. Charlie Robertson was a 26-year-old White Sox rookie in 1922 when he faced down the Detroit Tigers, led by Ty Cobb. The Tigers' .305 team average was the highest ever by a team that was "perfected." Mild controversy trails in the game's wake, with Cobb repeatedly insisting that Robertson was doctoring the baseball. But Robertson's feat's unlikeliness keeps it high in the pantheon.
No. 5 is also No. 40: that's the number of years Randy Johnson had lived when he threw his perfect game in 2004 for Arizona against Atlanta. At an age when most of us are happy to get out of bed in one piece, Johnson performed his craft flawlessly. Johnson struck out 13 in the game and survived the toughest out of the night on the first batter, a bunt attempt that Atlanta's Jesse Garcia nearly beat out. As a player sure to join the other six Hall of Famers on this list, the Big Unit added a massive highlight to a great career. A nice coda is the gorgeous gold watch that Johnson later gave his catcher, Robby Hammock.
No. 6 presents a tale of perfect timing and perfect company. On Yogi Berra Day at Yankee Stadium in 1999, where Larsen threw out the first pitch, New York's David Cone enjoyed an amazing alignment of stars, needing only 88 pitches to do it (Yogi's number? 8). His victory over Montreal was the first interleague perfect game since the one thrown by ... Larsen, who watched it all from the stands with batterymate Berra. The Expos were not the most fearsome bunch of hitters ever beaten in a perfect game, but the coincidences bump the event up the list a notch.
No. 7 took a while to get going, but once it did, it was a real gem. Tom Browning of the Reds had to wait through a rain delay until 10 p.m. to take the hill against the 1988 Dodgers. He proved unhittable and beat that season's World Series champs, the only time in history a team was a "perfected" champion.
No. 8 is the newest member, Buehrle of the Southsiders. He cleaned the clocks of the defending AL champs, and his center fielder DeWayne Wise added the cherry on top: the single most amazing perfect game-saving play in the history of perfect games. If Tampa wins the Series this year, Buerhle will move up, too.
No. 9 also benefitted from a great late catch. Center fielder Rusty Greer had to race in and dive for a low liner in the ninth to preserve Kenny Rogers' 1994 perfect game for Texas. Rogers added his own lines to the storybook. Perhaps the definition of the journeyman lefty, he had started his career as an unwanted outfielder one step away from life in the Florida strawberry fields before someone noticed he might be a pretty good pitcher.
No. 10 let David Wells of the Yankees, that well-known lover of baseball history, make his own in 1998 with a whitewashing of the Twins.
No. 11 is Philly's Jim Bunning, who joined the perfect club in 1964, and though it was against the lowly Mets, it was the first in the NL since John Ward's in 1880. Bunning also threw his perfect game on Father's Day, a fitting tribute to his nine children!
No. 12 is a bit against the grain, as one hates to put Cy Young anywhere except near the top of a pitching list. However, his perfect game did come in a deadball, low-scoring era. So for the purpose of this subjective ranking only, Young is, for once, not No. 1, even after his 3-0 win for Boston over the Athletics in 1904.
Nos. 13 and 14 are paired by era, calendar, and style. J. Lee Richmond of the long-defunct Worcester club and John Ward of the Providence Grays threw the first two perfect games, respectively, on June 12 and June 17, 1880. These guys crafted games that literally set the standard. Plus, no other games have been pitched so close together.
This being a list, we have to have some games at the bottom, but I have to interject here that this should in no way downplay their accomplishments.
No. 15 came from a Hall of Famer, Oakland's Catfish Hunter, against a 1968 Twins team that included Harmon Killebrew and Tony Oliva.
No. 16 came from "El Presidente," Dennis Martinez, the only non-American to throw a perfect game. Were this list being made in Nicaragua, Montreal's Martinez would be at the top for his 1991 win over the Dodgers.
No. 17 was courtesy of another unlikely hero, fireballing Len Barker of the Indians over the Blue Jays. Among the bits of perfect trivia about this game is that it was the first to include a DH.
No. 18 is Mike Witt of the Angels and only because he beat the Rangers on the last day of the 1984 season, when the biggest thing on the minds of both non-playoff teams being when the bus to the airport left. And so the ultimate getaway day is our getaway point for this list.
James Buckley, Jr. is the author of Perfect: The Story of Baseball's 17 Perfect Games (Triumph Books, 2005) and many other books on baseball and sports history. He lives and writes in Santa Barbara, California.
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